Critic's Notebook: How Political Shows Play in Light of President-Elect Trump
The powerful women of 'Scandal,' 'Veep' and 'Madam Secretary' seem distant now, writes a television and film critic, as plots about governors banning Muslims feel all too real.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s startling presidential win over Hillary Clinton, TV’s political comedies and dramas land very differently. The powerful women in or near the Oval Office on Scandal, Veep, Madam Secretary and House of Cards, who until Nov. 8 seemed to reflect or be just a step ahead of the news, now seem like an increasingly distant dream. And on shows like Designated Survivor and Graves, about a current and former president, respectively, outlandish plots about ethnic bias and immigration pop out and appear more believable.
As the trending hashtag #Trumpworld suggests the uneasy reality of the moment, it’s easy to think we’ve wandered into the Twilight Zone. In fact the British series Black Mirror, an updated variation on that classic (originally created for U.K. TV and now on Netflix), offered a prescient, dystopian proto-Trump fantasy three years ago.
In that Season 1 episode, “The Waldo Moment,” an irreverent blue cartoon bear, a television character named Waldo, runs for a seat in Parliament. At first Waldo seems like an amusing distraction but — you can see this turn coming — people vote for him. He becomes “a mascot for the disenfranchised.” Once the episode was comedy; now it plays as near-prophecy. Even as results were coming in on Election Night, the official Black Mirror account tweeted: “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.”
The satire on Veep comes from hyperbole as Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer, first as vice president and then as president, and her staff maneuver the political waters with cynical ambition. The joke was never that she was a woman in the White House; that part seemed entirely plausible. As most recent season ended, Selina lost the presidential election, a defeat that resonates more directly now.
For years, television drama has had its fictional shadow-Hillarys. There’s Tea Leoni’s Secretary of State on Madam Secretary and a couple of first ladies wanting to become president. House of Cards' Claire (Robin Wright) has become her husband’s running mate, and she always has higher aspirations. On Scandal, Bellamy Young's Mellie is gunning for her husband’s old job. When the show returns in January, the first episode will reveal the election results. Whatever those may be, top Clinton backer Shonda Rhimes likely expected a different real-life outcome, and a correspondingly different audience perspective. Last season’s buffoonish Hollis Grant, a bluff businessman with no qualifications who ran for president, was created as a fun-house mirror of Trump. Not so funny anymore.
On ABC’s Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland plays a cabinet member who becomes president after a terror attack during the State of the Union address. Among his first challenges: The governor of Michigan starts rounding up Muslims, and rejects the legitimacy of the president. In this scenario the governor is a melodramatic villain who might as well be twirling a moustache. In real life we know who threatened to ban Muslims and whose birther rhetoric tried to delegitimize a president.
On Epix’s Graves, Nick Nolte plays a former president who, 20 years out of office, regrets his wrong-headed policies. Among them: deporting undocumented immigrants. He apologizes in a TV interview and invites immigrants in danger of deportation to stay on his land. Would ex-President Trump, two decades from now, ever consider such an act? Events are swirling ahead with such momentum that we can’t predict how political realities and fantasies might merge. The credit sequence of “The Waldo Moment,” like the epilogues of Marvel superhero movies, leaps into the future to offer a guess.
As the episode ends, Jamie, the actor who provides the voice behind cartoon Waldo, quits in disgust, only to be replaced by a sound-alike. The epilogue shows Jamie homeless, being rounded up from the streets in what looks like a police state, while Waldo’s image appears Big Brother-like on screens everywhere. If polls and predictions have taught us anything in the last week, it’s this: Don’t be so sure that even TV’s most cartoonish inventions can’t become real.